Thanks to the doubters

I remember one day shortly before I left my old job, my boss went ballistic on a phone call because I was going to be participating in a sales presentation for the first time. I’d been the development lead on the project and knew it forwards and backwards, but he wasn’t convinced I could do it. I wasn’t on the call where the explosion occurred, but according to those who were he said something along the lines of “She CAN’T SELL. She’s NOT QUALIFIED.” I remember how confused I was. How could he know I couldn’t do it if he’d never even seen me try?

I was raised in a household where, though quiet example, I didn’t really ever perceive limitations. My dad lacks fingers on his right hand and still drew architectural drawings by hand until AutoCad made that unnecessary. When he wanted to build something for which a jig didn’t exist, he figured out how to make the jig first, then made what he wanted anyway. My mom is one of the most humbly impressive people I know. In the course of making awesome things, she learned construction, small engine repair, dressmaking, embroidery, about every cooking technique under the sun, furniture refinishing and organic pest control to name a few. In her role as quality assurance manager at ET, she tackles new technologies on probably a monthly basis. When I have a question about a tax situation or a benefits rule, I ask her not expecting her to know the answer but knowing she will research until she figures it out. Not once have I heard either one of them say “I can’t do that because I’ve never done it before.”

When I first started my business I got a lot of questions from clients along the lines of “Well have you ever done this exact thing before?” To me it was irrelevant. That’s why we’re good, because we can blaze a new trail and never stop growing. Part of it probably comes from the problem-solving training you get with programming. Every developer knows that the problems you’ve already solved are old news; it’s your ability to solve a new problem, to do something you’ve never done before (maybe no one’s ever done before), that makes you valuable. But most people aren’t trained to think that way. They are trained to see what has been done before as a guarantee of future success. It’s comforting. But it’s also stagnant. It’s not moving you forward.

I still remember the shock and pain in my heart when I heard my boss’ doubt all those years ago. I took it personally – “It’s me! You know me! I’ve worked so hard for you – you really think I can’t do this?” I went into the bathroom and had a hard cry. And then we as a team pulled it together, killed our sales pitch, and won the account.

Since then I’ve encountered many situations where someone doubted me or didn’t think I was good enough. It stings at first, and then I remembered what I learned in that sales pitch long ago: Life doesn’t wait for you to pout. Dust yourself off and get it moving in a positive direction. If you’re not getting some people to say “I don’t know if she can pull it off”, you’re probably not pushing yourself very hard. Doubt is confirmation that you’re doing something interesting. That you’re moving forward. That you’re moving your limits outward. If others can’t see it, that’s not their fault. They don’t know the strength of your bones or the fire in your soul. But they don’t have to. You don’t need anyone’s permission to be awesome. So quit waiting for it and go create.

Sorry I’m Not Sorry

April is Parkinson’s Disease awareness month.

When people I know find out I have early onset PD, they often ask a lot of questions about the disease and what it means for me. Sometimes they tear up or tell me they’re sorry as they learn more about the prognosis. It’s a natural, kind-hearted reaction. But I have to tell them that while I’ve grieved certain things and certainly have days when I struggle, I’m not sad or sorry. It’s been probably the hardest but also the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Mine is the less common akinetic-rigid kind, so I don’t have much of the tremors that people commonly associate with PD. Instead my body sort of locks up into a hard, crampy, awkward statue and I. Just. Can’t. Move. Right. Can’t smile, can’t turn my head (this is really unnerving for the poor person sitting next to me in a car or at dinner), can’t wiggle my toes. My walk starts to look like the Tin Man. For the past two years, much of the time I’ve had the luxury of taking a little vacation from this because there is a medication called levodopa-carbidopa that reduces the symptoms. While I’m grateful for it, it only lasts a few hours and you build up a tolerance fairly quickly. When I started taking it I could get 4 hours out of a dose. 2 years later it’s down to a little over 2 hours. For some people who’ve been on it for years, it only lasts 15 minutes, and pretty severe side effects come with it. PD is degenerative (caused by the loss of certain cells in the brain that produce a chemical called dopamine) and there is no known cure. The medication does nothing to slow its march through the brain. Although not considered terminal, PD kills more people in the U.S. than AIDS.

That’s the heavy stuff. But you know what? We all die. You, my friend, reading this post, will die too. Had PD never found me, I still would have succumbed to something sooner or later. But I’m not sure if I would have truly lived.

We live in such a fast-paced world. We’re pressured to work all the time, accomplish all the time and keep up with everyone else’s carefully curated life feed all the time. Oh, you don’t make your own organic kale and chia seed smoothies every morning? You don’t have a tiny nose and invisible pores? You don’t blog? You can’t quote Buddha, Nietsche or Marx on command? You don’t wake up looking radiant with artfully mussed hair and perfect lighting every morning (#nomakeup #nofilter)? You haven’t made 98% of the things you’ve pinned on Pinterest? You don’t have a new designer handbag? You haven’t posted a snarky yet impressively witty observation this week? Your furniture isn’t from Pottery Barn? You don’t drive an Audi? You haven’t lost those last 10 pounds?

Who the fuck cares?

Are you happy?

Would you be happy even if you did do all of those things? Have they ever, in your entire life, even once made you truly happy?

And that’s why this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I know that I will likely live to see myself lose the ability to run, walk, paint, craft, talk, hug and smile. Making peace with that has helped me to understand that there’s a difference between being living and being alive. It made me see that time is a perishable commodity. None of us can flip the hourglass back over once it’s started. To choose one thing is to choose to forego another. What is worth sacrificing for?

For me it came down to the moments that echo in my heart. Sharing a victory with our team at ET. Being there for a friend in need. Running with the wind in my hair. My wonderful, amazing family. Taking my dog to the park. Being in love. Making something beautiful. Everything else is secondary. And I’m not sorry.

The main thing I can tell you about my experience with early onset PD is that I’m pretty sure it isn’t all that different from anything you are going through right now. Everyone has challenges. Everyone has limitations. Everyone has to make choices with what to do with their finite, perishable, precious, beautiful life.

I hope you choose what echoes in your heart.

Grinonomics: Why I’m Running a Half Marathon

My labor economics professor at Iowa, who is at least partially responsible for me appreciating how hot a smart, bald man can be, used to say “Economics is the study of choices and optimization in the presence of scarcity.” For those of you who weren’t bitten by the econ bug, the basic premise is that most situations involve trade-offs and each of us use our own individual rating system of what’s important to us to make the right choice. This is called optimization.  By doing so, we inevitably pass up something else but are better off because the thing we sacrificed would bring us less satisfaction than the thing we chose.

The example our professors liked to use was beer and pizza (Iowa didn’t just get ranked the #1 party school in the country for nothin’). If you have $20, and a beer costs $4 and a slice of pizza costs $2, you could get 5 beers and no pizza, 4 beers and 2 slices of pizza…you get the idea. A partier on a diet might opt to drink their dinner and do 5 beers and no pizza. A lightweight with a big test to study for might do 1 beer and 8 slices of pizza. It’s all based on each item’s value to that individual, and the value to them is a combination of their preferences and their current situation.

Well that sounds incredibly simple, right? We each have a set of resources which are not unlimited (money, energy, time, patience, etc). We just pick the thing we want most based on our current circumstances and everyone is as happy and satisfied as they can possibly be. We’re optimized. As long as we know what we want.

For years, I optimized toward work. Everything else (social life, romantic relationships, hobbies, etc) took a back seat. On weekends in the summer I’d sit in my home office programming while my friends were at the lake. There was a sense of satisfaction in the sacrifice. My business grew steadily and I believed that I was building something that would make my family happy and financially secure someday. Someday…

I’ve had two friends in the last year whose recently retired parents were diagnosed with scary and advanced forms of cancer. It made me sick thinking of how hard they had worked their entire lives, only to have this strike as soon as they were supposed to start enjoying the fruits of their labor. Luckily, both are doing well now. But I bet they don’t take the future for granted, and I know their families don’t either.

My horizon changed a couple of summers ago. I’d been slowly losing the ability to move my body for months. None of my doctors could figure out what was happening and since they couldn’t figure it out, they couldn’t treat it either. I had all but given up having a social life in order to focus my remaining energy on my business. I came home from work one day, exhausted, alone and hurting, and collapsed on the couch. Checked Twitter. Steve Jobs had died. I cried for the first time since the whole thing had started.

Steve Jobs arguably achieved more professional success than just about anyone of our generation. He was both creatively and technically brilliant. His well-documented single-minded focus on his work led to products had revolutionized personal computing, entertainment, communication and social media. And as he faced the end of his life, I wondered if he was happy with the trade-offs he had made. Does an iPhone in every home make up for missing your kids’ soccer games?

I realized that if this was it for me, I wasn’t happy with the trade-offs I had made. I wished I’d run Dam to Dam one more time. I wished I’d gone to the lake more. I wished I’d been the one to call or text first more often. I wished I’d spent less time trying to be perfect and more time dancing like a fool and grinning so hard my gums showed. I wished I’d told people how amazing they were. I wished I’d made peace with my body. I wished I’d spent more time getting ready with my girlfriends. I wished I’d made time for playing guitar, painting, and working with clay. I wished I’d found my soulmate and given him my all. I wished I’d had kids. I wished I’d worn high heels every day.

Time is the scarcest resource we have, and it’s also impossible to quantify. Some of us get a warning bell before our time runs out, to remind us to take a good hard look at our trade-offs. Some of us don’t. I am lucky enough to have been granted a temporary reprieve, a second chance to go back and do some of those things I’d passed over the first time. Each one is a gift.

Originally, my plan (at my doctor’s recommendation) had been to run the Dam to Dam 20K next spring. I was hopeful but uneasy about this. That’s 10 months away and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to do another long race in case things turn south between now and then. So, enter the Des Moines Half Marathon. Ok, it’s .7 miles farther (side note: thanks to Jill and Jamie Black for the refresher on farther vs. further last night) and I ran it once before and hated the weather, the route, and the fact that I did a horrible job of pacing myself due to trying to keep up with my brother Nate. I couldn’t care less. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to do this that I’ve grinned like an idiot through 90% of my training so far.

I can’t tell you exactly what I’d be doing with that time and energy if I weren’t training for this race. Some of it would probably be spent on worthwhile things and some of it would probably be spent watching Bravo. But I’m pretty sure when my time comes, I’m not going to regret the trade-off. And when I cross that finish line, I’m going to feel like I just won the Olympics. So if you’re in town on October 20th, please consider this an invitation to come out and share that moment with me. I’ll be the one grinning so hard my gums show.

I Think I Finally Get It

One of the things I admire most about my dad is that he doesn’t give a damn what the world thinks of him. His quiet confidence is both respectful and bone-deep. It’s evident in in his free-flowing hair, his rolling, head-back laugh when he finds something truly funny (often something more than a little irreverent) and the way his blue eyes blaze when someone – anyone – strays from moral true north.

When I was in middle school, there was a boy in my class who wore Hooters shirts every day. It drove my friend Sarah and I crazy. Looking back I’d say the shirts themselves weren’t the issue, it was his comments and disrespectful attitude more than anything that got our backs up. Anyway, after he told one of our female classmates she was “just a boy with a penis wrapped around and stuck up her butt” (I still don’t get it but I know it’s rude) we got fed up and decided to create a parody shirt. I remember going home and telling my parents about it and instead of talking me out of raising a stink, they immediately got behind us. It took my dad about 10 minutes to set up a drafting board with some yellow flimsy and start gleefully calling out double entendres. Once we’d settled on an animal, he even helped me get the shape of the rooster’s wattles right to suggest the appropriate male anatomy. Now that’s support. Even when we were threatened with suspension from school for wearing our shirts, the support from home didn’t waver. I was 14 and ready to take on the world.

I think most of us are born with that confidence and learn to lose it along the way. I’m not talking about arrogance or cockiness, but the self-assurance that comes from knowing who you are and what is right and that those two things are enough in this world.

Somewhere between 14 and 25, I stopped saying the word that was on our shirts for fear of offending people. I started downplaying the story to make it sound less radical. I think it disappointed my dad to see me backing away from something not because I thought it was wrong, but because I was afraid of being labeled a feminist or something else that might scare people. It wasn’t just the t-shirt story either. I avoided political discussions because I didn’t want to ruffle feathers (especially those of the conservative guys I dated). Basically, I gagged myself. It was exhausting and nauseating.

About the time I was starting to feel the prickle of frustration rising up, a new flaw emerged: I was sick. And getting worse. For almost a year, it was a scary mysterious unknown disease which turned into a degenerative neurological disease. Neither one fit with the image I wanted people to see of me (or the image I had of myself), so I drove myself into the ground pretending to myself and the rest of the world that it wasn’t happening. That facade made it about impossible for anyone to get close to me.

I felt exhausted. And alone. But then an amazing thing happened. My friend Jason called me out on my bullshit and asked me (in a nice way) why I wasn’t doing anything for PD research. I got defensive. And then I cried for a while. And I started to find myself again.

Recently, my friend Emma sent me an article about “Founder’s Disease” – basically the idea that entrepreneurs tend to project a continually rosy picture to the world, preventing others from being able to help them and driving themselves crazy in the process. Being positive is good. Dishonesty is toxic. Sometimes we lose that distinction.

For me, it became clearer first when I sat down and had an honest talk with myself. At my friend Karin’s suggestion, I actually looked in the mirror and did this out loud. (Try it. It works). I started to remember what it felt like to be comfortable in my own skin and assured of who I was. That gave me the peace to be more open with the people around me, which brought us closer. I even accepted help a couple of times (still working on this one).

All of that led to one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced – Team Foxy for Dam to Dam. I got to see the most wonderfully caring, fun, sweet and generous side of so many people. And it reminded me that there’s a point to all of this breathing in and out that has nothing to do with how many likes my last Facebook pic had or who thinks I’m liberal or weird or dorky. It’s about the moments where you truly connect with others.

Life is still exhausting sometimes, but it’s fulfilling, people are beautiful, and I know that I’m not alone.

Oh, and the shirts said “Cocks”. And they were bad ass.

The Gift of Urgency

When I wake up in the morning, there’s still half a beat when I think I have my old body, the one that couldn’t stand to walk down the stairs and instead had to bound. Then I feel the cramping stiffness in my muscles and I remember how lucky I am.

This whole journey for me began two years ago, or I should say, I became aware that I was on this journey two years ago. Scientists think that by the time motor symptoms occur, 60-80% of the dopamine-producing cells in your brain are gone, so who knows how long this thing was eating away at me in silence.

I still remember the day I first noticed my stride getting shorter during a Dam to Dam training run. Ten months, nine doctors and countless tests later I couldn’t do a push-up or nod my head, and no one knew why. My walk had turned to a shuffle. Smiling was effortful. It was actually my friend Karin, a nurse, who suggested Parkinsonism. My doctor thought it was unlikely given my age, but he was kind and said that it was easy to check. He’d just give me levodopa and if that was it, I’d be able to move normally in 30 minutes.

I remember feeling disappointed as the minutes ticked by. I think I was hoping to feel a warmth, a tingle, any sign to indicate that it was working…but I felt the same. Then, as we got up to walk to the car, I realized that my walk felt different. Like I could stretch my legs out. Almost…normal. Not wanting to say anything yet, I tested turning my head and nodding. Then I broke into a run. I didn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day.

On the surface, I was thrilled to have relief from the symptoms. I could walk normally, turn my head, even work out. Below the surface, in a place deep down that I couldn’t even admit was there, I was scared and angry. I focused on my relief at having a treatment with the tenacity of a shipwreck survivor clinging to a piece of driftwood. I avoided going back to my wonderful doctor. I avoided learning anything about Parkinsonism. I avoided talking about my health with anyone but a couple of confidants. If anyone pointed out that this medication was a temporary stopgap measure, I ended the conversation as quickly as possible. I wanted my old life back and I was determined to make it happen.

Luckily for me, I have amazing friends and family who gently, gently let me know that they expect more from me than that. And that gave me the strength I needed to expect more from myself. So I went back to the doctor. Opened up to my family and friends. Even felt safe enough to cry about it a few times. And I realized that this is no different from any other obstacle that people face in life. It just has to be dealt with.

So this morning I did something that I’d been steadily avoiding for the past year. I watched a video of Michael J. Fox speaking about Parkinson’s Disease research. If you want to watch it, you can do so here.

In it, Michael says “Any of us have whatever we face in our lives and we find ways to deal with it and move forward…if we don’t, it doesn’t matter what you have, you’re not going to move forward, you’re going to stagnate, and it doesn’t matter anyway.”

Before all of this happened, I was coasting through life to some extent. Not that I didn’t work hard or didn’t have challenges, but for the most part I wasn’t pushed outside of my comfort zone (although starting my own business definitely had its moments). This has given me the gift of urgency, the opportunity to sink my teeth into a challenge in a way I never have before. That means continuing to grow my business, hopefully having a family, and working to raise money to find a cure for the estimated one million people in the U.S. with Parkinson’s and related diseases. And I know that I’m not alone in any of those endeavors.

Our first project is organizing a team to run Dam to Dam as a fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. I’m overwhelmed and grateful for the support we’ve already received. I’ll be sharing more information about this in the coming weeks, but to those who’ve already stepped up to be a part of it, thank you. I can’t express how excited I am that we’re doing something positive. If you want to get involved, hit me up on a Facebook message and I’ll send you more information.

My wish for my friends and family who are reading this is that you will be as lucky as I am, to have the opportunity to face something that tests your limits and makes you realize how small you truly are in this world. Something that pushes you to move forward faster and stronger than you ever have before. Something that forces you to admit that you can’t do it alone. And then I hope you’ll have the courage to ask for help from those around you, to let people in, and to appreciate how lucky you are.

Error: Infinite Anxiety Loop

When I first started programming in the real world, I had some anxiety about whether I was cut out for the job. I didn’t live and breathe code like some of my teammates. Instead of working on side coding projects in my spare time, I watched The Real World and hung out by the pool. Because of this insecurity, I faced each new assignment with equal parts nerves and excitement. Adrenaline pumping, I would research ways to solve the problem, plan out my attack and then write the code, fingers flying as fast as I could type toward what I hoped would be a glorious victory that would prove I was meant to do this. When I thought I was ready, I would hold my breath and hit F5 (“run” in the coding world), tapping my fingers as I waited for the code to compile and render its verdict. And, inevitably, BAM! A big, ugly red error page of doom would greet me with some snide message like “Object reference not set to an instance of an object.”

The first time it happened, I was certain it was a dead end. I had no idea what “Object reference not set to an instance of an object” meant and saw no path to resolution (Google wasn’t what it is today). “Well, I guess that’s it,” I thought. “I’m not cut out for this.” Game over. No point in trying.

Most of us have these little excuses built into our lives somewhere. “Oh I’m not artsy.” “I can’t sing.” “I’m terrible at math.” “I’ll never be in great shape.” They let us off the hook when we are too anxiety-ridden to try. Sometimes they’re over things where we encountered a setback at some point years ago and have been hanging onto the rejection ever since. Sometimes they don’t do any harm. But sometimes, if given too much room to grow, they stop us from pursuing things that would add richness to our lives if only we had the courage to try again.

Luckily my mentor, who had a lot more experience than I, very calmly (and I think with some amusement) sat down with me and went to work. While he didn’t immediately know what was causing the problem, he used the information available to narrow down the possible causes, then tried things until the root problem showed itself and I could correct it myself. I believe the whole process took roughly five minutes.

Errors and setbacks are an inevitable part of coding even for great programmers. The thing I noticed is that the most valuable members of the team weren’t those who could do it perfectly the first time or those who always knew immediately what the answer was. They were the ones who rather than getting nervous when they encountered an unexpected setback, got excited. They saw the error as information, a step in the process of solving the problem, rather than an excuse to bail out and stop trying.

Not all negative events in life are as simple and easily defeated as an error page. By the time we are knee-deep in adulthood, many of us have experienced serious traumas that knocked us off our feet. I’ve watched people close to me deal with the loss of a job, parents’ divorces, losing a family member, finding out a partner was cheating, seeing a loved one diagnosed with an incurable disease and losing a baby, among other things. Those are all deeply painful, worldview-shaking experiences. They make us question ourselves and those around us. They make us want to quit. And sometimes we need to shield ourselves from the prospect of further pain by not trying for a little while. And that’s ok.

But for me, there has always come a point once the dust has settled when I begin to suspect that my shield may have outlived its usefulness. Twice in the past week, I’ve caught myself making excuses for my own cold behavior by saying “I’m sorry, I’m still a little emotionally raw from my divorce.” Is that true? Yes, it is. Is it dangerous for me to get too comfortable with the idea that I can’t do better? Extremely. That’s not who I want to be. There’s a reason that ESPN doesn’t do human interest pieces on athletes who experienced an injury, gave up, steeped themselves in bitterness and now spend their days telling anyone who will listen how they could have been great. Those stories don’t feed the soul.

And that’s really the lesson that I began to learn years ago on that first programming assignment. Setbacks, large and small, are a part of life. When something bad happens, it’s ok to feel it. It’s important to mourn the loss and healthy to acknowledge its effects and take a break when you need it. But don’t let that become the ending to your story. Give yourself time to heal and then write the ending you deserve.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

My dad took me to see the Rolling Stones at Cyclone Stadium in the mid-90’s. I was in middle school and remember feeling that I was witnessing something I wasn’t supposed to see watching Mick Jagger jump and wiggle around singing songs like “Honky Tonk Women”. We were more of a Beatles family so the Rolling Stones were a little on the racy side and I am pretty sure at one point my dad had me turn around so I wouldn’t see the video they were playing on the big screen. One of the songs I did see in its entirety though was “Can’t Get No Satisfaction”. While the song is often interpreted in a sexual context, the first two verses are actually about the messages we get from popular media encouraging us to want more, more more.

"When I’m drivin’ in my car and that man comes on the radio and he’s tellin’ me more and more about some useless information supposed to fire my imagination. I can’t get no, oh no no no. “
"When I’m watchin’ my TV  and that man comes on to tell me  how white my shirts can be.  Well he can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke  the same cigarettes as me.  I can’t get no, oh no no no.”

White shirts are good until something comes out that can make them whiter…then white just won’t do anymore. It’s white-er that you need to be happy. This is a fiendishly clever marketing strategy because it simultaneously creates a problem that did not previously exist (were you really worried about the whiteness of your shirt 5 minutes ago?), gives us something concrete to blame our problems on (“that’s it, I don’t feel good about myself because my shirts aren’t white enough”) and provides an easy solution (just buy the product). The trouble is, whiter shirts don’t really solve the underlying issues that make us unhappy so the relief is short-lived. We end up right back with the same insecurities we started with — only with whiter shirts — and soon go in search of a new cure. 

For the better part of the fall, I was constantly irritated with my iPhone 4 and counting down the months/weeks/days until I could go get the iPhone 5. For months, I felt some level of inferiority and frustration every time I had to use my “outdated” iPhone 4. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I checked my eligibility to upgrade and how many times I nearly spent $700 on an iPhone5 at full retail price, convinced that I simply needed it.

I’ve had the 5 for about a week now and can assure you that while I like certain features, overall it adds no more to my happiness than the 4 did. My vehicle, even though I agonized over what to buy and was thrilled to go pick it up, today provides provides approximately the same level of satisfaction that my 1994 Ford Probe did in college. The dress that I got at Express 5 years ago still makes me feel about the same way as the new BCBG dress I got a month ago. How can this be?

Simple. They provide the same utility. My phone lets me communicate. My vehicle gets me from place to place. My clothes keep me decent. So why the anxiety?

Our culture glorifies this constant state of discomfort, especially in entrepreneurs.  We hear about Steve Jobs’ relentless pursuit of the perfect shade of beige for the first Apple computer, rejecting hundreds of choices before making his own. We are admonished to never be satisfied, always strive for more. Job candidates are told to list their biggest weakness as “perfectionism” because it sounds like a weakness but is actually considered a strength.

Last fall I had the pleasure of hearing Donna DiMenna speak. She’s an executive coach and organizational psychologist with a very impressive resume and knack for storytelling. One of the points that really jolted me was when she said “Perfectionism isn’t running toward success. It’s running from failure.”

When we were building TableNabbr, in the beginning it was all creativity and ideas and trying to build something awesome. Then we launched, and as happens with a new product, issues arose. We were stretched pretty thin trying to keep Entrepreneurial Technologies (the consulting business) clients happy as well as continue to build TableNabbr, and very quickly TN shifted to Avoid Failure Mode. Avoid Failure Mode can appear to be very productive for a period of time. It causes people to work long hours and expend a lot of energy. But the energy is all being directed at patching holes rather than creating something beautiful. There is no joy in perfectionism. Eventually, the enthusiasm you had for the beauty of the original plan is lost in the struggle.

There are three big lessons I’ve learned from all of this:

  1. Don’t allow propaganda to replace your thoughts and emotions. If you are feeling anxious because you are convinced that you need a new something in order to be happy, ask yourself: what will I be able to do with this new item that I can’t do today? If the answer is ‘nothing’, it likely won’t add anything to your happiness. So then the question becomes: why do you want it? What underlying insecurity or discomfort with your own life are you trying to fill with this new item? Are you feeling inadequate at work? Do you feel out of shape? Are you insecure about a partner or potential partner? Identify the real issue and spend the time and money addressing that. You’ll be much happier.
  2. Creativity and joy are inseparable; creativity and fear are mortal enemies. They may look similar on the outside, but the drive that comes from the joy of creating and the drive that comes from the fear of not being good enough are not the same. One is full of light and life. The other is desperate and empty. The only time we ever truly create anything is when we are on offense. Strive to build something of beauty, not to avoid making mistakes. Of course, part of putting something out there is having to respond to feedback and issues and that process is essential and important. But the key is not to lose sight of the vision that drove the creativity in the first place. For me this means still taking time to do things that are not necessary to avoid failure, but build on the beauty of the original vision. For example, with, our fundraising platform, I make certain that every time I work on the project and fix a bug or add a necessary feature, I also give myself permission to spend an equal amount of time adding something that gives me pleasure to create. That might be as simple as adding some graphics or a little feature I haven’t seen elsewhere. But it keeps the joy going.
  3. Building something is hard but enormously more satisfying than flitting around finding fault with yourself and others. I can tell you that 20 new gadgets or dresses or vehicles couldn’t make me feel as good about myself as nurturing something beautiful. That “something” may be a tech project, a clay animal, a relationship with a friend, or a surprise for someone I care about. It takes work. It requires a person to put a stake in the ground and commit to trying, which is by nature a risky proposition. There’s nowhere to hide. It will never be perfect. It means we are choosing this opportunity and by definition letting some others go. But at the end of the day, we will have made something, flawed as it is, that adds value to the world. Something that did not exist before. Something that could not have existed if we hadn’t decided that this little kernel of an idea was special and deserved to be nurtured. And that is deeply satisfying.

Time to Change the Filter

When I was home for Christmas, my parents, brother and I played the game Outburst. If you’re not familiar, I believe it was popular maybe 20 years ago and you get a topic name and then have to try to guess the related terms on the card. Our family’s copy was purchased in the 90’s and so adding to the challenge was the fact that if you got a topic like “Things in an Airport Terminal” you could be confident that your answers were not going to include “body scanners”, “WiFi”, etc, but instead things like “pay phones”. Anyway, the actual cards are printed in this interesting way where there is a scattering of red dots across the cards that render the text of the answers unreadable until you slide the card into this reader that puts it behind a red film. The red film cancels out the red dots, leaving your eyes free to read the text.

We had some great family fun playing the game, especially since we laughed through watching each other try to come up with answers for “Howard Stern” (no one in the family had ever seen or heard his show) and “People Who Talk about Sex a Lot” (remember, this is the 90’s).  Needless to say, it took a while for any team to actually get enough points to win but it was fun as always.

Back up a few weeks…Mom had been trying to put this extended family Christmas together for months and I’d been sort of silently avoiding committing to it. It actually took me a while to figure out what my hangup was with the whole thing. I love our family. It’s always comforting to be home and the conversations are often hilarious. And since my brother, Nate, lives out in California now obviously I wanted get to spend time with him.  But somehow Christmas at home was presenting an emotional hurdle. It wasn’t until I felt myself getting angry listening to my mom’s excitement at having Nate and I back that I realized I saw spending that time in Ames as a regression. For me, it was the first time in years (maybe 10 years) that I’d spent a full 48 hours with my parents and brother for Christmas. My holiday schedule opened up significantly this year because I got divorced in May. So unlike my mom, who saw this as an opportunity for us to spend time together, all I could see was a looming reminder of the fact that I’d tried to start my own family and failed, and was back home again.

Luckily, at age 32 I still don’t want to disappoint my mom so I packed up Lucy (my wonderful corgi) and our presents and headed to Ames two days before Christmas. I picked Nate up from the airport on the way and got to have him to myself for 45 minutes or so to catch up (something we don’t do often enough). When we arrived, the house smelled like Mom’s baking, Dad was ready to get some tunes going on the stereo and Nate settled down to do puzzles, just like old times. And instead of feeling angry, upset, or like a failure, I felt at peace. Life might be different than I thought it would be at this stage in my life, but there are a lot of wonderful things to be grateful for.

Especially when seen through the right filter.